Nursing home residents finally get to see their loved ones face to face

Connie Kendrick and her son, William Kendrick, embrace as they see each other at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta on Thursday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Connie Kendrick and her son, William Kendrick, embrace as they see each other at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta on Thursday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

After almost a year of no physical contact, and week after week of seeing her mother only on video calls, Lisa Hecht leaned in Thursday for a hug.

“I love you,” she told Fran Lefkoff again and again, eager to connect with the 86-year-old whose Alzheimer’s had rapidly progressed since their last face-to-face visit.

At first, Lefkoff said nothing. Then, a couple of minutes into their embrace, came her response: “I love you.”

Lisa Hecht hugs her mother Fran Lefkoff, 86, as she visits her mother face-to-face after months of restrictions at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta on Thursday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Lisa Hecht hugs her mother Fran Lefkoff, 86, as she visits her mother face-to-face after months of restrictions at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta on Thursday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It was the moment Hecht had waited for since last March, when the William Breman Jewish Home, along with all the other nursing homes and assisted living communities in the state, were forced to ban visitors to stanch the spread of the coronavirus.

Thursday, the state eased those restrictions, allowing the facilities to welcome back the residents’ loved ones.

But exactly what that welcoming looked like varied from one facility to the next.

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Ann Schepps, daughter-in-law, hugs Larry Schepps (left) as she and her granddaughter Penton, 2, leave after a 20-minute face-to-face visitation at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta on Thursday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Ann Schepps, daughter-in-law, hugs Larry Schepps (left) as she and her granddaughter Penton, 2, leave after a 20-minute face-to-face visitation at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta on Thursday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Right now, there’s different guidance from state officials and federal authorities. Nursing homes must adhere to the policies of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, as well as the Georgia Department of Public Health. Assisted living facilities have no federal oversight and must only follow the guidelines from the state.

Some facilities have not yet resumed visits, saying they need time to figure out the safest way for them to take place.

Coronavirus cases and deaths at long-term care residents have plummeted over recent weeks, falling 68% in February. At the same time, vaccinations have accelerated. Most long-term care residents in Georgia have been vaccinated. The trend line of decreasing cases and deaths is continuing in March.

State guidelines say indoor visits will cease at any facility that’s had a single coronavirus case in the previous 14 days. CMS guidelines allow for visits to continue as long as the resident and those in nearby rooms can be shut off from the rest of the facility.

“Right now, every long-term care community is assembling their team and doing training to have safe visits based on the new guidelines,” said Ginny Helms, president and CEO of LeadingAge Georgia, which represents nonprofit and mission-driven senior care organizations. “There will be some variation of what will be allowed but everyone is working very hard to make these visits happen.”

Helms said long-term care communities are devising protocols, such as requiring visitors to wear masks at all times in common areas.

And they aren’t just opening their doors for more visits. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are also returning to communal dining, group activities, and reopening on-site hair salons.

William Kendrick holds a hand of his mother, Connie Kendrick, as he and Sam Allen (background), Connie's brother, visit her face-to-face after months of visitation restrictions at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
William Kendrick holds a hand of his mother, Connie Kendrick, as he and Sam Allen (background), Connie's brother, visit her face-to-face after months of visitation restrictions at The William Breman Jewish Home in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Mark Lowell, executive director of St. George Village in Roswell, said the community will resume normal activities gradually.

“We meet every week to discuss our reopening,” he said. “All along, we have been very careful. And, just as we were measured as we were closing things down, we needed to be very thorough and measured, and we need to use that same approach as we are opening up.”

For many family members, resuming visits is tinged with sadness. On Thursday, William Kendrick was at the William Breman Jewish Home. He placed his hand on his mother’s cheek and told her, “It’s so great to finally see you.” But he could see his mother’s decline, and it hurt.

“It was hard,” said Kendrick, an only child, shaking his head and tearing up.

“I think not seeing her on a regular basis, that lack of continuity. She just seemed so sad.”

At St. George Village, the atmosphere was mostly cheerful, Lowell said.

“Let me tell you, I see a lot of smiles on residents’ faces, and the atmosphere in the community has lightened up a great deal with residents knowing their vaccinated loved ones can come into the building and visit them,” he said, noting unvaccinated loved ones can still visit but with more restrictions, such as masks and social distancing.

While Sue Shaw has been able to have a few visits with her father, Gene Stelten, over the past year outside, Thursday marked the first time in a year she got to see him in his apartment at St. George Village. Both vaccinated, they got the green light to spend time together without social distancing.

“Listen, I got a hug for the first time from Sue in a year. This was a real treat,” said Stelten.

Then he turned to his daughter and called her by her nickname: “Tiny Bell.”

Shaw said they had a lot of catching up to do and maybe a little work to do.

“I think I need to help you tidy up a little bit,” she said with a smile.

AJC data specialist John Perry contributed to this report.

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